Why Keith Ellison (yes, Keith Ellison) has been talking so much about older, rural white men

MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Rep. Keith Ellison speaking at his campaign rally at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub on Friday the 13th: “I want you all to know that if you look at the numbers, the one group that is seeing their mortality numbers get worse are 50-year-old straight white men in rural communities.”

It was an unexpected message from a surprising messenger in an unlikely venue.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was revving up the crowd for the main event at his campaign rally at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub on Friday the 13th. Right before he turned the stage over to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ellison asked those packed onto the dance floor to think about a particular demographic that is suffering:  It’s a group of people that gets little attention and even less love from the progressives that gravitated to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said the attorney general candidate and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

That group? Older white men.

“I want you all to know that if you look at the numbers, the one group that is seeing their mortality numbers get worse are 50-year-old straight white men in rural communities,” Ellison told the crowd. “They are being hit with the opioid crisis, they are being hit with suicide and depression. This is happening.”

‘No one outside our circle of compassion’

It’s a demographic that is not a sympathetic one for many on the left, seen by many as synonymous with Trump’s America. But Ellison, extremely popular with that wing of the party, disagrees. “There is this idea that because of historic racism and sexism and all those other -isms, there is this idea that if you are a straight white male that you’ve got everything straight. But when you are in a society that says you are better than other people then you don’t get to have problems, right?” Ellison continued. “You understand what I’m trying to say? You don’t get to be a human being when they try to exalt you above other folks. So you’re suffering but no one really knows. I say this to you because I want you to know that there is no one, no one, no one outside of our circle of compassion. All are in. Everyone is in.”

At the First Avenue event, the Sanders crowd listened mostly quietly and applauded at the end. But the message was hardly greeted with the same enthusiasm as when Ellison heaped criticism on Trump — especially his recent Supreme Court nominee — or when he mentioned his support for the legalization of marijuana.

When asked later about that segment of his speech, Ellison said it is a message the DFL — especially its urban and progressive segment — needs to hear. Yes, he acknowledged, part of the reason is political. Democrats nationally lost older white men to Donald Trump in 2016 after many of them had voted for Barack Obama in previous presidential elections. And he argues that Democrats and progressives have a message that could appeal to those voters and make a difference in both 2018 and 2020.

But the other reason, Ellison said, is moral. “I didn’t say it there by accident,” he said of his remarks at the First Avenue rally. “I said it there because you’re talking about a lot of urban folks, a lot of young folks, a lot of kids of color, a lot of women. And we need to start combating this idea that only people who belong to a historically marginalized community feel like things aren’t working. A lot of people feel that way. And we have to speak to what everybody is going through.”

Ellison said Trump was successful in carving off blue-collar white males by telling them that Democrats don’t care about them. While Ellison argues that Trump policies have hurt working people regardless of race or ZIP code, that message is often hard for Democrats to deliver due to a  lack of trust. “Because we will not address the concerns of all Americans, we leave certain people out of the conversation,” he said after a recent campaign event in North Branch. “And I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, not on moral grounds but also not on political grounds.”

Study ‘had a profound impact’

In 2015, two economists from Princeton University, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a study that found an increase in mortality rates among middle-aged white men and women between 1999 and 2013. That decline in life expectancy reversed decades of progress and was unique to the United States. The impact was more evident among those with lower education levels.

The numbers are staggering. Had the white mortality rate held steady at its 1998 level, the study found, there would have been 96,000 fewer deaths between 1998 and 2013. Had it continued at the rate of decline experienced between 1978 and 1998, 488,500 deaths would have been avoided.

While increases in suicide, opioid and heroin overdoses and alcohol abuse explains some of the phenomenon, the authors said that financial stress might have played a role as well. Median household incomes of whites began falling in the late 1990s.

In a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, Deaton remarked on one of the more surprising reactions to the study. “There’s only one Congressman in all of Congress who called up to make an appointment to talk to us about dying white people, because they were in his constituency and he was really concerned about them,” Deaton told the magazine.

Who? asked writer Anne Lowrey. 

“Keith Ellison,” said Deaton. “I was really impressed.”

“This study had a profound impact on me,” said Ellison, who pulled his phone out to find the study and the interview, partly to show that his interest in the idea didn’t coincide with his first statewide campaign.

“Now what does that mean for public policy?” he said. “Well, one thing it means is that we’ve got to make sure this economy is working for people, because I think we undercount how critical a functioning economy is to people’s emotional well being. Imagine not being able to take care of your family?”

Ellison told a story of a man who had promised his daughter that if she got good grades he would find the money to send her to college. When the time came, however, he couldn’t.

“Imagine how that dad feels. You know what I mean. That’s tough,” Ellison said. “That man happened to be a white man. But did I identify with the sentiment? Absolutely. Absolutely I could have been saying that same thing. Somehow we don’t see how similar we all really are and I think we need to.”

But Ellison also tied the issue to election politics. “Don’t tell me that there’s certain parts of the country that are just not reachable by a progressive person. You’ve got teachers striking in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota. And there are a lot of places in Minnesota that are just like those states. And there are people who said this school thing has gone too far. And they got out there and they did something about it.

“If we will just talk to everyone, we can make this country so much better for everyone. This has been on my mind a lot.”

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 07/31/2018 - 10:00 am.

    Stay in congress

    So why doesn’t Keith Ellison stay in congress where he could do something about this? Becoming Attorney General of MN might further his personal ambitions to become governor, but it does little to push a national agenda.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/31/2018 - 11:09 am.

    Staying in Congress

    I’m inclined the same way as Richard Callahan, but I also think it’s a question that, instead of being rhetorical, ought to be addressed to Mr. Ellison directly. Perhaps he thinks a Republican Congress is going to continue to be intractable, and he literally won’t be able to do much of substance to advance a Democratic agenda (I’ve seen little evidence of a coherent Democratic agenda, but that’s a different issue). Or, just speculating, since we remain a nation of laws, despite the best efforts of the current President and his cabal of advisors, maybe Ellison believes using the law is a legitimate way to push a DFL agenda at the state level.

    Ellison is a political animal, and I get that there’s likely to be a certain degree of self-serving in the kind of message he’s trying to send, but he has seemed serious, knowledgeable, and sincere when I’ve spoken to him at local events that aren’t specifically campaign-related, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue, and “the numbers” he refers to certainly back him up.

  3. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 07/31/2018 - 11:12 am.

    Why does Keith Ellison want to live and work in Minnesota?

    A place where a homeless man pulls a desperate woman out of the river; where the police help a youth street vendor when called to shut him down; where a ballplayer stays trues to his team by striking out his best buddy for the big win but within moments has his arms around him.

    Minnesota is one of the few places in the country where the paradoxes of life are honored, confronted, discussed and shared.

    Following through on his gut response to the Case-Deaton report, being true to aspirations for a better life for those in need, regardless of how they look, takes him out of the run-of-the-mill politician standings and makes him a Minnesotan Politian.

    Where else would he want to spend his time?

  4. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 07/31/2018 - 12:36 pm.


    I don’t know how Mr Ellison made his decision to leave Congress. My observation is that he has a relatively short attention span and changes jobs fairly often.

    I would prefer an Attorney General candidate who has made a study of the AG office and chosen to work to earn that office over time.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 07/31/2018 - 12:49 pm.

      He’s been in Congress for 12 years

      …..so I don’t see how that rates as “changing jobs often.”

      Ditto for “short attention span.”

    • Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 08/05/2018 - 08:36 am.

      better AG candidate?

      Yes, maybe someone like Lori Swanson, who has been extremely effective as AG. Yes, she had a challenge at the convention from within the DFL, but she quit that race after one ballot (yes, ONE ballot, even though she was in the lead). Never got that. If she and her running mate Nolan win the DFL primary, I can just hear Johnson or Pawlenty’s ads about Nolan’s latest woes.

      Me? I just voted for Murphy.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/07/2018 - 06:23 pm.

        Swanson was never in any danger if she wanted to keep the AG job – the endorsement was irrelevant in that race. When the delegates dropped the ball and endorsed Murphy, that opened the door for her to run for governor. It may work out for her yet.

  5. Submitted by John Webster on 07/31/2018 - 01:52 pm.

    Giving Credit

    Give credit where it’s due: at least Keith Ellison – unlike most well-credentialed Leftists – is willing to admit that many (actually most) white men don’t have it easy just because of “white privilege”. Ellison is immune to ad hominem criticisms on this matter because of his race.

    The despair among these white men is due almost entirely to their downward mobility – they have been displaced economically, and they don’t have the skills to ever come close to earning what they used to earn. Some of this displacement has resulted from globalization – shifting high-paying manufacturing jobs to cheap labor countries. Some displacement has been caused by automation eliminating the need for lower-skilled labor. And some of it it has occurred because millions of low-skilled immigrants – mostly illegal – have been willing to work for much lower wages than citizens would. This last phenomenon is most apparent in lesser skilled building trades jobs like residential roofing, which 30+ years was unionized work in the Twin Cities paying (2018 dollars) around $26/hour with good benefits. Last month I noted that fact about roofing jobs elsewhere online. Another commenter responded to me that in 1990 he worked at framing new houses for $12/hour; he recently saw a help wanted ad for the same work in the same community at $10/hour – that work had been taken over by illegal immigrants.

    Ellison will, of course, never admit that open borders immigration would crush working class America even more. Few Democrats will because they want the future votes of those illegal immigrants. And almost all of the news media has airbrushed the reality of illegal immigration out of existence, Soviet style. You would never know that many prominent Democrats used to oppose illegal immigration as harmful to blue-collar Americans until the standards of political correctness changed around 2008.

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 07/31/2018 - 02:35 pm.

    Not hard to figure out really

    Ellison needs to attract more than the ultra left urban voter he is used to courting, Sanders appealed to many rural voters in the last election, so must be giving advice.

  7. Submitted by Rob Sebo Lubke on 07/31/2018 - 05:15 pm.

    Pardon my naïveté

    Straight white men have never had their liberation moment. They need one bad…and all of us will benefit when they are finally freed from the patriarchy that supports and kills them at the same time. I just think Keith Ellison is a stand up guy, and I’ll sure as hell vote for him as AG.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/31/2018 - 08:32 pm.

    Just maybe now….

    I get what he is trying to do and could very well succeed. As a federal legislator he represented only the district in which he was elected. He really wants to represent the interests of the entire state in a progressive manner. I do mean all and everyone. Nothing wrong with that. He is playing to his strength as a lawyer by running for AG rather then Governor for instance. I first met the man before he held elective office. He was connected to a environmental justice advocacy group. He attended my Environmental Issues class on two occasions. Once before he was elected and once after. He was compassionate and well informed about health and environmental injustice. I suspect a lot of things I care about regarding those issues will find their way into his play book as he continues his quest for this new position. He just might be the perfect person for this position. Remember it almost impossible for Ihan to lose in that district.

  9. Submitted by Laura Stone on 08/01/2018 - 09:36 am.

    Good move

    This story illustrates why Ellison has made the move to run for Attorney General of Minnesota: effectiveness is being at the right place at the right time. White Rural or White Middle-class men are suffering along with other groups because the few wealthy in this country are in control of every aspect of our lives and the how we choose to live our lives. Ellison probably understands that the most direct route to protecting citizens from the abuses of wealth is by holding this particular office. He has tried many other ways. And this story underlines his purpose is to protect everyone. I am thrilled that he decided to run for this office.

  10. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 08/05/2018 - 12:12 pm.

    I am a 65+ white man who lives in SW Minnesota, easily the most conservative, and regressive, region of the great sate of Minnesota, and I am a progressive. Now “that” is depressing.

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